A Conservative MP warned the prime minister that his leadership would be “on the table” if he did not set out a “clear plan” for the end of coronavirus restrictions, before later backing away from his perceived threat.
Steve Baker, a member of the COVID Recovery Group of Tory lockdown opponents, wrote to members of the group and urged them to put pressure on the party’s chief whip over the prospect of continuing COVID-19 restrictions.
In a letter to fellow MPs, widely seen as a warning shot to Boris Johnson when it emerged on Thursday, Mr Baker told them: “It is imperative you equip the chief whip today with your opinion that debate will become about the PM’s leadership if the government does not set out a clear plan for when our full freedoms will be restored, with a guarantee that this strategy will not be used again next winter.”
Mr Baker cautioned that if the government persists with a strategy that “hammers freedom, hammers the private sector, hammers small business owners and hammers the poor”, it would “inevitably” lead to the PM’s future in Downing Street being “on the table”.
“We strongly do not want that after all we have been through as a country,” he added.
England entered a third lockdown last week to try and control the spread of coronavirus.
The spread of a new, more transmissible variant of virus, first identified in the UK, has led to fears of the NHS being overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients.
Ministers have not ruled out taking further action, with Mr Johnson telling MPs earlier this week that the government will keep measures “under constant review”.
Mr Baker implored other lockdown-sceptical colleagues to “act now”, otherwise “events will become inevitable”.
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“Certain government scientists have said that ‘the current lockdown could last until late spring’. There is no reason to think there will be any real resistance in cabinet to the argument for greater and longer and more draconian restrictions on the public,” he said.
“This could be a disaster. Nothing seems more certain to break the public than giving hope before taking it away, and doing it repeatedly.
“Government has adopted a strategy devoid of any commitment to liberty without any clarification about when our most basic freedoms will be restored and with no guarantee that they will never be taken away again.
“People are telling me they are losing faith in our Conservative Party leadership because they are not standing up for our values as a party.”
The contents of the letter, first reported by The Sun, caused a stir in Westminster.
In a bid to temper the furore, Mr Baker later wrote on his Twitter account: “What this country needs is the complete success of @BorisJohnson, with his excellent EU deal, a successful vaccination programme and a #Road2Recovery back to freedom.
“I am clear Boris is the only person to lead us out of these difficulties and I support him in that endeavour.”
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said the Tories were “playing politics and fighting amongst themselves” the day after Britain reported its highest daily increase in COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
“The Conservatives have presided over the worst recession of any major economy and worst excess death rate in Europe,” she said.
“The British people need a government that is committed to defeating this virus and getting Britain vaccinated.”